Keep mistakes to a minimum, and the St. Louis Rams believe they can play with anyone.
An 18-point loss at New Orleans didn't keep coach Steve Spagnuolo down for long. Take away Sam Bradford's two game-swinging rookie mistakes, give him more time to throw and remember the fundamentals of tackling on defense, and maybe it goes down to the wire against the Saints instead of a 31-13 loss.
"If you go down there and you get your butt whupped and you say, 'Whoo, they're pretty good, there's no way we could have beaten them,' that's one thing," Spagnuolo said Monday. "We just feel like if we had not made some of those mistakes we're in that game and who knows what happens?"
Spagnuolo doesn't believe the Rams (6-7) were outclassed against the Saints, or against the NFC-leading Falcons in a 34-17 loss three weeks ago.
"When the game is done and over, you just feel like you're capable of having success against a team like that if you play better, and you know you can play better," Spagnuolo said. "We all know that, and that's what's disappointing."
A franchise that was 1-15 last year and 6-42 the previous three seasons combined has made great strides and appears to be gaining confidence through the ups and downs. They're still leading the NFC West with only three games to go, and if nothing changes the rest of the way would host a first-round playoff game against the 10-win Saints.
"Because I love this group so much and I know what they are and I know how good they can be and what they're all about, I want other teams to feel that," Spagnuolo said. "I want the league to know that."
Although he stubbornly refuses to discuss the playoffs, Spagnuolo at least acknowledges the finishing stretch — the Chiefs and 49ers at home and the Seahawks on the road — has gotten bigger. Safety Craig Dahl said the coach told players Monday to "start tightening down the screws and honing in on every single little detail."
Spagnuolo said he knows coaches from his days as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles who had been at it a quarter-century and never been in the postseason.
"I think what the guys have got to realize is that it's a special time, this time of year, to be in the divisional race," Spagnuolo said. "Because not everybody gets that."
The Rams ended up 2-1 in a stretch of three consecutive road games, a record that they'd have happily taken before the fact. They had lost 16 of their previous 17 before winning at Denver and Arizona.
St. Louis was in it against the Saints, too, before a devastating 14-point swing near the end of the first half. Brandon Gibson had a step on his man at the 2 for a pass that could have cut New Orleans' lead the 14-13, before Malcolm Jenkins stepped in for the 96-yard interception return that gave the Saints a comfortable 21-6 cushion.
Bradford was under fire from the Saints' pass rush much of the day, and on the Jenkins interception had trouble following through on a pass that floated a bit. The rookie accepted all the blame for his other interception, thrown into a crowd in the end zone in the fourth quarter to wipe out another scoring chance.
In the victories at Arizona and Denver, the Rams totaled one turnover. Bradford totaled two interceptions his previous seven games.
"Turnovers killed us," Bradford said. "Turnovers hurt you everywhere, but when you get into the red zone and turn the ball over, it just gives the other team all of the momentum in the world.
"I've got to be better when we're down there and I have got to be smarter."
Bradford had company. Safety Oshiomoghe Atogwe bit on a pump fake on Marques Colston's 5-yard touchdown catch to open the scoring and Steven Jackson fumbled at the end of a 20-yard carry in the first quarter. The offense was 1 for 11 on third down and the Saints were 11 for 16 on third down against the Rams' defense.
"Both sides of the ball didn't play well on third down," Spagnuolo said. "And both sides of the ball didn't play real good in the red zone, I don't think."